Sunday, February 7, 2010

Thinking about war and conflict

It's something I do a lot in my work here, seeing as I work at a peace NGO. There's a disturbing amount of it in this region, most of which never comes up outside of the few circles in which it's a concern. Ask yourself this: had you ever heard of South Ossetia or Abkhazia before last August? When I ask myself that question, the answer is no, but it's a conflict that's been seething to different degrees since the end of the Cold War. As is the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict; as is the Chechnya conflict (at least a lot more people know about this one); as is the Dagestan conflict; as are several other conflicts in the Caucasus. These conflicts have just been roiling under and sometimes above the surface for 20 years now, and so there's a lot for my NGO to do, and a lot to keep my mind occupied when I'm at work.

One of the primary ways that my NGO tries to conceive of conflict is through an individual lens, focusing on histories and memories. Conflict isn't something that we can really talk about in one way, because outside of statistics--number of bombs dropped, number of people killed, amount of territory taken or lost, dates of events--there's very little about the history of any war that's set in stone, because everyone experiences war in a different way; everyone develops unique and individual memories of a conflict that inform their own personal histories of a conflict. This can be, and often is, problematic for anyone working in the sphere of peace building, because how can you start to build peace in a conflict if you don't address the places that each individual is coming from? More than that, how can individuals understand the way towards peace if they don't understand the experiences of each other? It's this fundamental issue that we grapple with in our work, and so its the basis of much of what we've done so far; if we were historians (well, I'll call myself a historian) we'd probably call it a hermeneutic approach

I say all this above as a pretext for the rest of my post, just to set out where I'm coming from. I realized the other day that I had never really thought of this outside of the context of the society I find myself in. As absurd as it sounds, up until now I had thought of all the work we were doing, all the methods we were applying, as something that was applicable only to developing countries--surely, after all, my own country doesn't have the problems that Armenia has when it comes to war and conflict, right? And then, my director and I were talking the other day about how peace organizations often encounter so much resistance in their own societies for daring to work for peace; it suddenly struck me how negatively I view peace movements in my own country, and how often I dismiss them as absurd and ridiculous. I don't dismiss the idea of creating a more peaceful society as absurd, but so often I see the efforts of peace organizations and my first instinct is to look down on them as naive or counterproductive.

What I find myself constantly doing is thinking that somehow America can't benefit from the kinds of work that we do at my NGO, because we're so far "above" that--yes, we are a nation at war, but surely we're at a more advanced stage of war, one that demands different ideas about how to achieve peace, no?

Well, no.

If anything, I've come to think of this idea of histories and memories as among the most important methodologies for moving towards peace, especially because when I think of peace movements in the US the word "dialogue" is not in any way associated with them. I don't think of peace organizations in the US as trying to understand the histories and memories of broad swaths of people, nor as trying to bring society together to understand our individual histories together. And maybe it's because I've dismissed many of these organizations (Code Pink consistently comes to mind) for so long and so never see them doing these things, but I wonder how much we try to understand each other in America, and how much either peace organizations or organizations more accepting of war really try to understand each other. We're all operating on our own histories and our own memories, without going to too many lengths to understand those of others.

I feel that if there's anything I need to do better--and there's a great deal in my life that I need to do better--it's to start to broaden my understanding of my own memories and histories of war and conflict in America and to hear out those of others. Most of us are so insulated from it that that's hard to do, but the beauty of Peace Corps is that I'm constantly forced to reflect on my own country and I get to view it as somewhat of an outsider during these two years. So I'll keep thinking about war and conflict, but I'll stop believing that it's only something that touches the developing world, because my own country bears its scars in ways that too often remain invisible.


Brent said...

that's the most thought provoking and relevant thing I've seen posted on a blog in a long time. I'll be chewing on it for a while, and hopefully even talking to you about it soon.

Michael Alexander said...

Well that John is one of those dangerous ideas kids aren't supposed to have any more.

Keep it up.